Porfirio DiDonna

Nielsen Gallery

Porfirio DiDonna completed his last paintings late in 1985, before he was aware of the brain tumor that was to end his life a year later at age 44. This powerful exhibition of 21 paintings and 13 drawings (all from 1984 and ’85), featured DiDonna’s “vessel paintings” in which a central, urn-like form provides a point of entry into these large canvases. In his elegiac catalogue essay, Barry Schwabsky sees these last works as the culmination of DiDonna’s formal and spiritual vision—one that began in the ’60s with Expressionist studies of the Crucifixion, developed into Minimalist dot and line paintings in the ’70s, and refined itself into undulating urns in the ’80s. Elsewhere, these works have been described as “religious objects,” yet DiDonna considered his work as engaging the formal rather than the spiritual.

Indeed, the most successful of the paintings are those in which the color is most vibrant and the vessels evoke the tradition of still life, landscape, and figuration. In the most sacral of DiDonna’s paintings, the jewellike colors and forms recall the cubistic shapes in Franz Marc’s masterworks. A tightly drawn yellow vessel in the center acts as a repository of light in a work that seems to have been created and colored like stained glass. The vessel, perhaps a chalice or urn, is delicately painted in ochre, blue, white, and gold, and accented with feathery strokes. Surrounded by a magenta and blue aura, bounded by lines that open out at the sides and top, this form suggests earlier depictions of the Crucifixion. A third, loosely painted, yellow-and-green form softens the edges. The paint flows within the lines, creating streams or roadways and is allowed to bleed and drip. This transcendent image is the product of a communion of tightly bound form and formlessness, design and spontaneity.

Although DiDonna relied on the initial drawing of the vessel, he varied his rendering of this form, sometimes using rigidly controlled lines and sometimes energetic, broken brushstrokes. In one work, DiDonna opened his urn by placing a floating windowlike rectangle in it. Lush neo-Impressionist brushstrokes in reds, ochres, yellows, and browns connote more sensuous realms.

The sensual and organic qualities of DiDonna’s oeuvre are most clearly present in his drawings. An untitled drawing from 1984, fashioned from charcoal and gouache on blue paper, features an undulating dark-blue and white form whose curves suggest the graceful flow of a dancer’s body. In turn, these curves form the sides of two surrounding “vases,” drawn in cinnabar red and festooned with red hieroglyphs. With his organic abstractions, DiDonna was able to synthesize the mysteries of flowing rivers, the female form, and religious vessels. His final works are romantic as well as contemplative explorations of the sublime.

Francine Koslow Miller